Adulthood is an invigorating stage of life as young people join the workforce, take on more responsibilities and set their sights on the future. But its many facets — from managing finances and buying a home to achieving work-life balance — can be overwhelming.
In this series, TODAY’s journalists help young Singaporeans navigate this stage of their lives and learn something themselves in the process.
SINGAPORE — Recently, while I was in the middle of my seven months’ long internship, I recall lying on my exercise mat fully dressed in my physical training attire, as though I was ready to commence my workout.
But unless my exercise routine consisted solely of the corpse pose, I did absolutely nothing that night.
It was close to midnight, and I had just knocked off from work, having pushed through multiple assignments that day. I realised that I only had enough willpower to change into my exercise kit but lacked the headspace to start the exercise.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I thought to myself and resigned myself to the fact that it was going to be another day of physical inactivity.
This was becoming a common occurrence months after starting my first “full-time job” seven months ago, when I started my internship with TODAY as a journalist. These were my first steps as a newcomer in the workforce.
In the weeks before my internship began, I had resolved to start my journey towards healthier living. That meant incorporating daily exercises such as running and weight training, paired with close monitoring of my daily calorie intake.
But as soon as my first few work deadlines landed and in my daily haste to do a good job, any exercise routine I had went by the wayside. Once, I even found myself inadvertently skipping my meals.
My calorie-counting habits also gradually turned into subconscious snacking as I scavenged kitchen cupboards and raided pantries, eating whatever was conveniently available throughout the day.
Although I was able to slowly acclimate to the workload, periods of increased stress caused my weight to fluctuate heavily from my all-time lowest of 78kg to around 84kg.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that these could be construed as excuses that can be overcome with enough determination and motivation.
But now that my internship is about to come to an end and I’ll soon be entering the workforce upon graduation, I wanted to find out how I am able to cultivate the right mindset and deal with work stress concurrently. How can I manage my fitness goals while being a functional adult?
To find out, I spoke to several psychologists and dietitians who gave me some insights on why young adults going through a study-to-work transition may face additional stress, and how they can better manage their fitness and time during such adjustment periods.
CAUSES AND COPING MECHANISMS
Right off the bat, Dr Annabelle Chow, a clinical psychologist in private practice at Annabelle Psychology in Singapore, helped me identify the common stressors for young adults going through adjustment periods.
This included increased responsibilities and meeting deadlines, as well as less common factors such as unclear workplace processes and organisational changes.
“The shift in schedule and demands on our brains and bodies can disrupt sleep patterns, and make it challenging to maintain a healthy exercise routine or eat nutritious meals. The sedentary nature of many office jobs can also take a toll on physical health if we’re not intentional about staying active,
“The pressure to perform well and prove ourselves in a new environment can be quite overwhelming. Additionally, the learning curve and expectations may be higher, leading to increased feelings of stress and possibly imposter syndrome,” she said.
Recalling my sleepless nights, anxiously worrying about any potential mistakes in my work, I found it hard to disagree with her assessment.
Mr Dion Lo Zhen Yu, a senior clinical psychologist and deputy head of therapy services at Better Life Psychological Medicine Clinic, added that young adults may feel a loss of autonomy and control during adjustment periods.
During such phases, encountering obstacles may “evoke a sense of worthlessness, helplessness or even hopelessness”.
“So (they) turn to something that’s accessible, that (they) think will give them a sense of power and control,” he said.
While this may manifest in potentially healthy habits such as adopting a fitness regime for some, many turn to more convenient outlets which provide immediate gratification such as binge eating, which provides a false sense of control without tackling the underlying causes of stress.
Having gone through chapters of constant calorie consumption during stressful periods, I knew the highs and lows all too well.
Ms Shalyn Yamanaka, an accredited dietitian with the Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association, explained that eating comfort foods triggers the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter that provides temporary relief from stress or unhappiness.
“These behaviours can become habitual due to their ease, accessibility and the conditioning to associate them with immediate stress relief,” she said.
Adopting an active and healthy lifestyle as a working adult not only brings about physical benefits but can also promote emotional well-being and improve cognitive function, said Dr Chow.
“Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters. These endorphins help reduce stress, increase feelings of happiness and well-being, and improve sleep quality, resulting in a more relaxed and rejuvenated state of mind,
“Cognitively, exercise enhances blood flow to the brain, promoting brain function and improving focus, making it easier to cope with stressors. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, combined with regular exercise, can foster a sense of accomplishment,” she added.
As I slogged through my adjustment period and gradually increased my efficiency at work, I began adopting a more structured fitness routine, but still found myself dissatisfied with my seemingly slow rate of progression.
I simply wasn’t seeing the fast results in weight loss and fitness improvement I desperately craved.
To this, Mr Lo explained that those just starting their fitness journeys may jump the gun and overcompensate, setting unrealistic goals for themselves, potentially from a guilt or fear-driven mindset that is often unsustainable.
Instead, Mr Lo recommended a “staircase” approach to goal setting, taking incremental steps and setting realistic milestones while recognising “micro-successes” along the way.
Dr Chow raised similar points, suggesting breaking down goals into manageable, five to ten-minute routines that can easily fit into daily schedules.
“Celebrate taking a step forward, even if it seems small. A step forward is in itself worthy of celebration, compared to never taking a step at all,
“We tend to overestimate our goals and underestimate our achievements. Do the opposite. Craft specific, clear, measurable steps and checkpoints that we celebrate each time we hit them. From time to time, re-evaluate your goals and how important they are to you,” she said.
Ms Yamanaka added that our health and fitness goals should evolve, but be rooted in intrinsically enjoyable activities.
“Figure out what makes you happy and content. Find a running or cycling group, tennis partner, or yoga class that you enjoy. Find a friend that will go with you, so it is a social activity and you have someone who keeps you accountable.
“When you are doing something for the love of it, and really enjoy it, the habit is more sustainable and is no longer a chore to do,” she said.
As for cultivating healthy eating habits, experts shared that moderation and diversification of stress outlets were key factors in managing our consumption habits.
“There is no harm in eating the food we like or buying a gift for ourselves once in a while. However, if it becomes our default way of coping with stress, that is when we need to supplement our stress management toolbox,” said Dr Chow.
“If you enjoy a piece of cake as an afternoon snack, sit and savour that cake and check in with how you are feeling at dinner to see if you need to eat a full meal or not,” added Ms Yamanaka.
Most importantly, my main takeaway after speaking to the experts was to have realistic expectations for ourselves during our fitness journeys.
Somehow, it had not occurred to me that setting a half marathon distance of 21.1km as my next milestone, after only managing 14km on my longest run thus far, was clearly unrealistic.
Treating each run as a wasted effort just because I had not surpassed my previous pace or distance certainly did not help.
As I will soon be starting another job during the holidays before returning to school for my final term, I plan to incorporate a sustainable fitness routine with attainable goals into my weekly schedule.
But before that, armed with all these adulting tips, I’ll need to rediscover my passion for fitness.
Maybe it’s time to lace up my shoes and go for my first relaxing run in a while.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Tan Ming Chuan is an intern journalist and producer at TODAY.